It’s time we draft Aussie Rules to tackle Indigenous mathematics

I found this essay by Christine Nicholls, senior lecturer at Flinders University, truly inspiring:

When discussing how to embed Indigenous Australian knowledge and practices into the Australian national curriculum effectively – particularly the maths curriculum – there’s no better place to start than analysing our own distinctively Australian national sport: AFL, the winter game.

Why, you might ask. Well, have you ever wondered why Indigenous players frequently excel at Aussie Rules, where they are vastly over-represented in the national AFL competition?

She points out that this excellence is not natural ability, based on superior genetics, but learned from early nurturing.

Australia’s Indigenous languages are rich in spatial terminology. As linguist Mary Laughren once noted:

“Desert children’s ability to handle directional and spatial terminology in particular is taken as a sort of intelligence test similar to the counting prowess test among Europeans.”

This ability, to handle sophisticated terminology about space and directionality with confidence and accuracy, and the concomitant skill in land navigation even when one is completely surrounded by desert, is inculcated into children from the earliest infancy, even today.

This spatial terminology is largely foreign to our Western culture.

This culturally specific form of mathematical knowledge, intergenerationally transmitted, imparted in its most intact form via Aboriginal languages, plays itself out not only on the AFL field but in tradition-oriented Aboriginal art, and has an important role in other Indigenous knowledge.

The ability to apply such knowledge is a product of nurture, not nature – it cannot be genetically transmitted any more than it is possible to transmit concepts about number and computation to other little Australians, except via processes of acculturation.

This reinforces the view that one culture is not superior to another — just different. And that we have a great deal to learn from indigenous culture. As Will Rogers once said: “We are all ignorant. Just on different subjects.”

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P.S. I will forgive Christine for classing AFL as the only football code requiring 360 degree spatial awareness. She obviously has not been exposed to Soccer or Gridiron.